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Grande Dame of Indexing at the National Library of Medicine, Thelma Charen, Dies

Thelma Golden Charen, former indexer, trainer in the Index Section and senior technical advisor in the MeSH (Medical Subject Headings) Section of the National Library of Medicine (NLM) died July 14, 2013 in Bethesda, MD, one day shy of her 97th birthday.  

Mrs. Charen first joined the Army Medical Library (precursor of the Armed Forces Medical Library and ultimately, the National Library of Medicine) in 1944 as a pre-cataloger in the Acquisitions Section. She had degrees in Greek and Latin; her natural facility with these languages led to her mastery of medical terminology and to positions as Indexer, training specialist for indexers and searchers, manual developer, and vocabulary specialist. She retired in 1997, ending a renowned 53-year career at NLM.

Mrs. Charen was notably awarded the Marcia C. Noyes Award, highest professional distinction offered by the Medical Library Association in 1985, as an acknowledgement of a career that resulted in lasting, outstanding contributions to health sciences librarianship. At the awards ceremony, Lois Ann Colaianni, then NLM Associate Director for Library Operations, commented, "Her wit and spontaneity in the classroom are as legendary as her logic. She has trained an entire generation of medical indexers working at NLM and around the world. It is not an exaggeration to say that the success of Index Medicus and the MEDLARS system is in great measure the result of Mrs. Charen's high standards for the quality indexing of the biomedical literature." At the same ceremony, current NLM Deputy Director Betsy Humphreys recalls that when Mrs. Colaianni asked all those present who had been taught online searching by Mrs. Charen to raise their hands, the vast majority of those in the room did so, including all members of the MLA Board.

Mrs. Charen also received two awards given to staff: the NLM Director's Award in 1983 and the Regents' Award for Scholarship or Technical Achievement in 1972 "for conceiving, developing and implementing the MEDLARS indexing manual and training program."   

Amongst her other achievements, Mrs. Charen also:

  • Authored or co-authored numerous publications on indexing, training for indexers, and manuals used by librarians all over the world, including Structure and Use of Medical Subject Headings: Annotations and Medical Subject Headings; Tree Annotations. Mrs. Charen wrote every MeSH annotation for indexers and online searchers for over 20 years; and
  • Served on the three-person task force, along with James L. Wood of the Chemical Abstracts Service, and Harold Oatfield of Pfizer Medical Research Laboratories to revise the ANSI Z39.5 standard for journal title abbreviations, resulting in the 1969 publication of the American National Standard for the Abbreviation of Titles of Periodicals

It is a mark of Mrs. Charen's great love of the National Library of Medicine and its staff that during her lifetime she and her husband, Sol Charen, anonymously endowed NLM's Frank Bradway Rogers Award. The award, given annually, is presented to an individual who has made a significant contribution to the Library's fundamental operational programs and services.  

Mrs. Charen's career covered the time from when the Library began indexing articles for the print publication, Index Medicus, and through development of accessibility of journal citations in the online database MEDLINE/PubMed. Today, indexers index over 750,000 citations annually for MEDLINE/PubMed from over 5,600 biomedical journals. MEDLINE contains over 20,000,000 citations to the biomedical literature. Where indexing the literature was once a process entirely handled manually, today 93% of citations are submitted electronically in XML format by publishers, enabling NLM to concentrate on quality control and indexing rather than original creation of the bibliographic citation and indexers index 74% of MEDLINE journals from the online version which accounts for 88% of all new citations being processed. The Index Section now also uses in production the Medical Text Indexer (MTI), a software indexing assistant tool that is optimized to suggest precise MeSH headings from analyzing the article title and abstract for the indexer to consider.

 Thelma Golden Charen

In addition to her considerable professional skills, Thelma Charen was known for a seemingly endless supply of dramatic eyeglass frames.

The National Library of Medicine is the world's largest library of the health sciences and a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH.) NLM collects, organizes, and makes available biomedical science information to scientists, health professionals, and the public.